Alchemical Speculative Placemaking

Creation of the Philosophers’ Stone. From the alchemical text Atalanta Fugiens, 1618

Published on February 19, 2021
Explanatory post

Table of Contents:

Introduction

What follows is a personal attempt to utilize alchemy as a means of speculative placemaking. Before moving forward, some clarification of terms is necessary.

Speculative placemaking refers to an activity that imagines other worlds, or changes to this world, that allow for the possibility of alternative pasts, presents, and futures, and in doing so creates space for critical reflection on the current world we inhabit, how we understand it, and how we might understand it differently. It is a proposal or offering set in another place that, at its best, can provide insight into how we might reside and act within this place in a more liberatory, inquisitive, and capacious manner.

Alchemy requires a bit more discussion. It was practiced for nearly two millennia in places such as China, India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Northern Africa, and Europe. In its applied aspects, alchemy was a form of metallurgy and the precursor to chemistry. However, practitioners also held that the process of transforming material substances was related to the processes of philosophical and spiritual development and transformation. Thus, alchemical texts were written in an esoteric and cryptic manner, full of allusions, metaphors, and imagery that integrated the applied, the philosophical, and the spiritual components in the same series of steps.

As a transnational practice that ran roughly from the end of Axial Age to the beginning of the Enlightenment, alchemy both integrated and informed numerous philosophical, spiritual and religious traditions, including: Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek mythologies; Taoism; Hinduism; Buddhism; Judaism; Hermeticism; Gnosticism; Christianity; and Islam. Texts from various traditions and locations were frequently translated and added onto by practitioners from other sites and belief systems.

Engraving representing The Emerald Tablet, an alchemical text circa 200-800 CE, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic combination of the gods Hermes (Greek) and Thoth (Egyptian).

The ultimate goal of alchemical practice was that of the magnum opus, the Great Work, that through a series of stages would transform prima materia (first matter) into the Philosophers’ Stone (in its various aspects: a self-replicating substance that could turn metals into gold; the elixir of life; or the achievement of spiritual enlightenment).

While alchemy went out of fashion and became a source of ridicule with the emergence of modernity and the hard sciences, in the 1900s, psychiatrist Carl Jung observed through both his psychoanalytic practice and research that which the original alchemists understood – alchemy was as much about inner transformation (individual and collective) as it was about metallurgy. Jung noted the alchemical stages corresponded with his own and his patients’ processes of psychological growth, beginning with the first matter of the ego and inaccessible unconscious and following a series of steps towards the creation of consciousness, wholeness, and realization of the Self, a process he called individuation.

This is the understanding of alchemy I held as I underwent this project. I drew upon and interacted with seven alchemical stages – calcinatio, solutio, coagulatio, sublimatio, mortificatio, separatio, and coniunctio – as a means towards envisioning and arriving at a different place, a different future-present, than the one inhabited now. In a sense, our current world can be understood as the prima materia that was subjected to the seven alchemical stages in an attempt to render into being a transformed, liberatory, whole, collectively self-realized alternative now.

The means by which I went about this is explained in the methodology section. It is important to note several things about this process. One is that while I state I was working with our current world as the prima materia, this was at the same time a very personal process and the results reflect that personal interaction with the alchemical stages. Perhaps it is more accurate to say the prima materia I exposed to the alchemical stages was the current world as it exists within me and I within it. Important to acknowledge is my positionality in this world as a white, cishetero male, born and living in the so-called U.S. While it is my hope that these contents resonate with others who are also interested in imagining and working for a better world, I only speak for myself within an understanding of my positionality.

Relatedly, in terms of speculative placemaking, it is best to understand place in this context as not being a literal place, but rather an interior space of reflection, emergence, and exchange, refracted through and informed by all the complexities – known and unknown, conscious and unconscious, thought and unthought – that comprise the human psyche and lived experience. One goal of the time spent in that interior space is to gain perspectives that may be applied to this terrestrial place.

Also important to keep in mind is that just as I am not making a literal place, the contents here should not be taken literally. To say they are metaphorical may also be too much. I would propose they are merely resonances, attempts to render in word, image, and sound that which by its nature eludes semiotic encapsulation.

Depiction of the potential meanings and outcomes of the calcinatio stage. The next linear stage is solutio, but work in calcinatio can also lead to the stages of mortificatio, separatio, or sublimatio.

Finally, while the alchemical process can be moved through here linearly, from the first stage of calcinatio to the culminating stage of coniunctio, like our interior and exterior worlds, there is little linear about it. In both its applied and psychological or spiritual aspects, passage from one stage to the next is not guaranteed, as the figure above demonstrates. I have attempted to integrate some of this non-linearity into the presentation.

If you are interested in trying this yourself, I have included a methodology/DIY section. Just as original alchemical texts where translated, modified, augmented, and reworked, this is an open invitation to do the same with what is presented here. Please feel welcome to use the comments to direct us to your own version, offer responses to this process, or ask any questions. Or email me here. Note that I am not an expert in alchemy nor psychology nor have I really figured out this whole being human thing. Any and all errors are my own. In order to not interrupt the flow of the presentation, all citations can be found on the last page.

Let the journey begin!

To give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation….
The task is to give birth to the old in a new time.”
– Carl Jung

From Amir Sulaiman’s Secret Art

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